Allen Park — No one is surprised the rebuilding Detroit Lions lost their season opener, but expectations are considerably higher for the Green Bay Packers in 2021, fresh off a 13-3 season and a narrow defeat in the NFC Championship Game.
And while the New Orleans Saints are far from pushovers, the team was entering its first game of the post-Drew Brees era without injured No. 1 receiver Michael Thomas and was playing a home game in Jacksonville because they remain displaced by Hurricane Ida.
All added up, the Packers entered the contest as a 3½-point favorite. They left Jacksonville 35-point losers, with quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the league’s reigning MVP, looking as bad as he ever has during his 17-year, Hall of Fame career.
But entering a Monday night matchup against their division rival, the Lions aren’t confusing the Packers’ bumbling Week 1 performance as anything other than an anomaly.
“New Orleans kicked the hornet’s nest,” Lions coach Dan Campbell said. “So we’re going to get everything they’ve got and we have to assume we’re going to get their ‘A’ game. That’s how we’re preparing.”
Under the bright lights of Lambeau Field, in front of a primetime audience, both teams will be looking to avoid a dreaded 0-2 start to the season. For Detroit, that begins with matching the Saints’ defensive effort.
Fortunately for the Lions, their defense replicates many of New Orleans’ schematic principles, given first-year coordinator Aaron Glenn spent the past five seasons as the Saints’ defensive backs coach. But, first and foremost, his unit must correct a slew of mistakes — from missed tackles to blown coverages to mental errors — if there’s any hope of keeping the Packers down for at least one more week.
One of the keys to the Saints’ success against the Packers was sure-tackling. According to data tracked by Pro Football Focus, the Saints missed just two tackles en route to the victory. The Lions, on the other hand, whiffed 10 times against the 49ers.
In part, those blown assignments contributed to the discrepancy in yards after the catch. The Saints allowed 90 in their win, while the Lions were gouged for 189 yards.
Detroit’s defensive line must also be better, not just rushing the passer but stopping the run. What success they did have affecting the quarterback against the 49ers came in the rare instances they got the opponent in third-and-long and could unleash their blitz packages.
“We got sloppy in our (run) technique,” Lions outside linebacker coach Kelvin Sheppard said. “That has nothing to do with a player’s ability, a guy getting outworked or out-physicaled. That’s just simply a mental (error) and those obviously can’t happen.”
In the pass game, a point of emphasis for the Lions will be how they defend shallow crossing patterns. On Wednesday, Glenn hammered it home with a rudimentary drill.
“Yesterday we did a simple shallow cross drill because our shallow crosses were awful last week,” Campbell said. “We talked about it and we made an emphasis. We went out here just like you would with a seventh-grade football team and we did a shallow cross drill.”
Campbell genuinely believes if the Lions clean up the plethora of correctable errors they made against the 49ers — admittedly easier said they done — they can compete with anyone.
The final key to success being emphasized this week, maybe even more than scheme or execution, is mindset. One of the big takeaways from the film study of Green Bay’s loss on Sunday was the physicality New Orleans demonstrated throughout the contest.
“We try not to look too deep into it, but (the Saints) do a lot of similar things we do, so it’s great film for us to watch,” cornerback Amani Oruwariye said. “We’re definitely breaking that down to the best extent, and a lot of other teams from last year challenged them with physicality. Tampa last year did a great job getting in their face and challenging them. So a lot of good tape out there on them.”
That physicality extends to the offense. The Lions understand the best way to slow the Packers is to keep Rodgers and company off the field.
“New Orleans’ offense, I thought, was able to control some things, which in turn affected Green Bay’s offense,” Campbell said.
Campbell is understating the sheer dominance the Saints demonstrated. In the first half, New Orleans ran the ball 25 times for 140 yards, averaging 13 plays on three scoring drives, while holding the ball more than 21 minutes.
Based on what has been working for Detroit to start the season, that might be the most realistic component of the game plan to accomplish. After all, the Lions averaged 4.8 yards per carry in the opener. The only thing that limited their continued effectiveness on the ground was they had to abandon it when the 49ers got too far ahead in the second half.
Campbell, as he has been throughout his first few months with the Lions, is also realistic. He knows the challenge his team faces Monday, against a team he refers to as the division’s gold standard. He knows how meaningful a win would be for his program, but so would incremental improvement.
“I want to play better,” Campbell said. “We need to play better. If something happens and we get beat because this guy is better than our guy and it was a technique error or an athletic error, that’s one thing. But just to do things to where we’re not in the right gap or our eyes are bad or just these things that are focus-related, man. Those are things that’s just like — it’s hard enough to win in this league, much less when you shoot yourself in the foot.
“I want to know that we’re out there doing what we’re coached to do and then let’s see where it goes. I would like our odds if we played the way we should play and we’re sound and responsible.”
Lions at Packers
► Kickoff: 8:15 p.m. Monday, Lambeau Field, Green Bay, Wisconsin
► TV/radio: ESPN/97.1
► Records: Lions 0-1, Packers 0-1
► Line: Packers by 11½